Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 40;   October 7, 2015: Contextual Causes of Conflict: I

Contextual Causes of Conflict: I

by

When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National Park

Bull moose antler sparring in Grand Teton National Park to determine breeding rights. This is a common occurrence when the bull moose are in rut. The configurations of antlers vary from bull to bull, but most configurations are such that the bulls can easily disengage once locked. From time to time, though, two bulls can actually lock antlers in a way in which they cannot disengage, and that event can lead to the deaths of both. In this way, conflict — which does serve a purpose from the perspective of species fitness — can lead to losses that harm the species.

So it is with destructive conflict in organizations. Constructive conflict does serve a purpose, but when it changes from a constructive form to a destructive form, it harms the organization. Organizational culture and policies that elevate the likelihood of constructive conflict turning destructive are counter-effective.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Destructive conflict can arise from a vast array of sources — innocent misunderstandings, campaigns to advance one's own career or destroy another's, spontaneous attacks, or acts of revenge. Destructive conflict can be inadvertently awkward or it can be intensely and permanently damaging. Rarely does it advance the work of the organization. At best, it enables temporary progress; at worst, it can permanently move a team so far from its objective that success is attainable only by redefining the objective.

Where destructive conflicts are common, their root causes likely lie in the organizational culture or the organization's leaders' approaches to shaping that culture. Here is Part I of a sampling of possible organizational roots of destructive conflict.

Prevalence of virtual teams
According to psychologist John Suler, a contributing cause of destructive conflict in the virtual environment is the online disinhibition effect. Briefly, virtual environments inherently weaken inhibitions that limit socially offensive behavior. (See "Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity," Point Lookout for April 3, 2013) It's also possible that frequent exposure to the virtual environment has lingering effects on our behavior in the face-to-face environment.
Because the virtual environment is here to stay, we'll eventually learn how to use it responsibly. But even now, the outlines of a solution are clear: we can operate safely in virtual environments when we use them in conjunction with regular face-to-face contact. Compared to people who interact solely by virtual means, people who know each other well might be less likely to commit the social errors enabled by the online disinhibition effect. And when they do commit such errors, their relationships can provide the resources needed to make repairs quickly.
Recent losses
The phenomenon of Because the virtual environment
is here to stay, we'll eventually
learn how to use it responsibly
loss aversion,https://c4i.co/zu is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains of similar value. Having recently sustained losses can sometimes enhance this effect. For example, losses in organizational responsibility or power, as might occur in reorganization, can cause us to resist further losses more strongly than might be objectively justifiable, which can lead to intensified conflict.
Loss aversion relates to all kinds of losses. For example, after a reorg, people who were close friends might no longer be able to socialize because of changes in office assignments or scheduling. In response to this loss of social contact, they might feel isolated, and their behavior with respect to managing conflicts can change.
Disempowerment
When people feel helpless to address troubling organizational issues, they can experience stress and feelings of frustration. In a phenomenon known as ego depletion, the reserves of energy they need to accommodate each other's failings can be exhausted. (See "Ego Depletion: An Introduction," Point Lookout for November 20, 2013) On edge, a group of people in such a state can be unstable enough to support frequent destructive conflicts.
Evidence of steady progress in addressing as-yet-unresolved organizational challenges can help people manage their frustrations about those challenges.

We'll continue next time with our exploration of organizational causes of destructive conflict, focusing on performance management, politics, and change.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Contextual Causes of Conflict: II  Next Issue

For more on Suler's work, visit his Web site.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenMQxYPiZbJwkiohtIner@ChacfghTGKjtMaCowwemoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
Rabin and Arafat shake handsCommunication Templates: I
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
Henny Youngman in 1957Quips That Work at Work: I
Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?

See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenoemlhQJdsJjvewmwner@ChacMkNGJVwqasdOWTlmoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.